Articles in this series:
Series: Innovation and Change
20.The Year 1930
We saw last week that the first decades of the twentieth century witnessed many innovations in Ethiopia. Such developments, we may now observe, were particularly noticeable around 1930, the year which witnessed Emperor Haile Sellassie’s highly publicised coronation.
Addis Ababa, ever the site of change, underwent several important developments at this time, when, as the British journalist George Steer says, it acquired “a certain polish and in some parts a mask”. His compatriot Fan C. Dunckley, who resided several years in the Ethiopian capital, notes that the city at that time “developed out of all recognition.” The Hungarian journalist Ladislas Farago draws a similar picture.He observes: “I have spoken with people who have returned to the town after being away five years and they hardly recognise it.”
A dozen or more new civic buildings and monuments were erected in this period. They included the Emperor’s new Palace (now Addis Ababa University), the Parliament building, the railway station, a model prison, and the Menilek mausoleum. Also erected at this time were the buildings for the new schools and hospitals and the printing press, all mentioned in previous articles, as well as several monuments and the like. These included the equestrian statue of Menilek, a Holy Trinity Star statue, a clock tower inspired by one of the obelisks of Aksum, and several triumphal arches.
Private Buildings – and a New Steam roller
No less significant there was a substantial amount of private building, around this time, of shops and houses, and a considerable growth in theuse of corrugated iron. Other developments of this period included the introduction of a system of piped water, which, unlike Ilg’s pioneer effort at the end of the previous century, at the time of Menilek, supplied private housing, and not only the Palace. Mention may also be made of the importation in Addis Ababa of a new steam roller, which, according to the British journalist Evelyn Waugh, was of the “latest pattern.”
Another innovation of this time was the founding of two cinemas, which, unlike their predecessors, were successful because of the existence by then of a larger appreciative public than had previously. Also symptomatic of the times was the opening by Ras Hailu of the Robinson night club, the first such institution in Ethiopian history.
A Changing Way of Life
All these developments were gradually accompanied by substantial changes in the capital’s way of life. A contemporary traveller J.E. Baum, writing in 1928, described the colourful traditional system, in which a minor chief would proceed along the streets of Addis Ababa “followed by twenty, thirty or forty retainers and men-at-arms, mounted upon his quick-stepping mule, red saddle cloth flapping in the wind, accoutrements jingling.” Beside him, the slave boy would be seen “trotting at the right side of his master’s mule, gun in bright satin case over his shoulder.”
Though old ways were slow to die, change was by this time already in the air. Noel-Buxton, writing only four years later, in 1934, was already conscious of the emergence of a new Ethiopian scale of values. Discussing the question of slavery in particular, he said, “The number of slaves formerly kept by men of importance is being reduced. This is partly due to the use of motor cars, which are becoming more effective as proof of a man’s importance – the purpose hitherto served by a display of slaves. Another important factor is the cost of keeping them in the city, where their food has to be bought in the market. In the country the cost of the grain they consume is never considered, but for chiefs whose wealth consists in land rather than in money, town prices are a serious consideration.”
Smoking and Snuffing
Other changes were also taking place. The habit of smoking and taking-snuff for example, though still condemned by the priests, was gaining ground. British Consul Walker states that, by this time, “many people were smoking imported cigarettes”, and that local tobacco was so cheap that “with a dollar a man may buy enough to last a year.” Commenting on the reduced fear of religious condemnation, he adds: “a householder may throw away his pinch of snuff when his confessor approaches, or the plug within his cheek. . ., yet a strong officer will not fear excommunication and the confessor will turn his head laughing and look elsewhere, lest the chief call his servants to push gently the priest away. For the confessor’s honour is great and none will do him violence.”
A similar attitude is evident from a contemporary poem by Mahetem Worq, recalled by Alemayehu Mogus. Composed when housing in Addis Ababa was being cleared for the erection of St. Mary’s Church, it made a pun on buna, the Amharic for coffee, and abuna, the head of the Church. It declares:
What is the use of being addicted (to coffee) Many a house was destroyed yesterday, because of that coffee (Abuna).
Increased commercial contact with foreign lands led, in this period, to a substantial increase, and diversification, of imports. The extentto which foreign imported goods had penetrated the local market was stated in a United States Consular Report for 1918, which noted the presence in Ethiopia, not only of imported textiles, but also of corrugated iron roofing, builders’ hardware, lanterns and metal lamps, candles, sewing machines, enameled ironware, jack knives, cheap stationery, intoxicating liquors and many other goods of foreign origin. The sale of corrugated iron was said to be ” increasing…… American hurricane lanterns were found in most of the stores and shops in Abyssinia, and were said to sell well, as there was “a constantly growing demand for these lanterns and for small metal wall lamps.”
The demand for sewing machines was likewise “permanent and growing,” the installment system leading to “many ” sales. Three types of German machine were on sale, in addition to the famous American Singer machine. The German hand-models ranged in price between only 7 and 11 Maria Theresa dollars, while those based on foot power, which were receiving a growing preference, sold for 17 to 20 dollars. The American models were not quite so cheap, varying in price between 9 – 5 and 70 dollars, though the cheapest was at one moment available for less than 8 dollars. Umbrellas and raincoats were at last “finding favour,” and 50,000 cheap imported felt hats were sold annually, though boots and shoes had “not yet found great favour.” Crockery and glassware were “coming into use in the homes of the better classes”, and the import of these commodities was “accordingly increasing.” Knives were becoming so popular that one firm was selling no less than 100,000 a year.
Though Ethiopians had been “slow to appreciate the value of watches”, an interest in them was “developing.” Matches were also of “growing importance.” Soap was selling “well”, and its use was “increasing.” Intoxicating liquors from abroad had achieved a “large sale,” the public liking Greek brandy in particular, because it was strong and cheap. Scotch whisky was also “liked,” while Vermouth of all kinds was selling “well.” Ethiopians also used a lot of drugs and medicines,” with the result that patent remedies had “met with considerable favour. ”
And in Eritrea, Too
Similar developments were taking place in the then Italian colony of Eritrea, as noted in a subsequent United States report for 1920. The “use of galvanised sheets,” it observed, “is increasing each year, and the imports during 1917 amounted to nearly 300 metric tons.” There was also, as in Ethiopia, a “substantial and steady demand” for iron and steel bars for the local manufacture of lance heads, ploughs and other agricultural implements. “As the natives improve their economic condition, a process always going on, they provide themselves with increased numbers of lamps and lanterns. There is also a growing use of street lights in the towns and settlements which require kerosene.” It had also become fashionable for “every native who could afford it” to have one or more home-made boxes, for which imported hinges, nails, screws, clasps, and padlocks were required, as well as pieces of metal for covering the corners, and otherwise strengthening, the box. Enameled ironware, tea kettles, saucepans, cups, bowls, plates and spoons were similarly coming into more general use each year.
Remoter Parts of Ethiopia
A decade or so later, in 1934-1935, the American anthropologist, Carleton Coon, who travelled into the remoter parts of Ethiopia proper, observed that corrugated iron roofing was then “carried on muleback far into the interior”, and that in the neighbourhood of the capital traditional type huts were often adorned with green Perrier and Chianti bottles (instead of locally made pots), placed upside down. This, Coon observed, “seemed to be the universal means of capping the point of a straw roof . . . we marveled at the amount of wine and whisky-and-soda that must have been drunk”.